City of Angels (1998), directed by Brad Silberling

city of angels posterThe Ethics of the Fathers tells us that one hour repenting and doing good deeds in this world is better than life in the world-to-come. Why? The Sages explain: we can only exercise our free will while we are alive. Therefore, we can choose to do good deeds only when we are alive. Doing good deeds is our mission on earth, so everything we do or don’t do influences our eternal destiny. That is why life in this world is so precious.

Once our life is over, we no longer have free will and our destiny in the world-to-come is fixed. This is the crux of Seth’s dilemma in City of Angels, a thought-provoking love story about an angel who wants to exercise free will in order to become human and share in the joys and pains of human life.

Seth is an angel whose job it is to observe mankind and be with them as they move from this world to the next. In some cases, he will protect them from harm; in others he will chaperone them to the world-to-come.

While observing a man about to die from cardiac surgery, Seth’s attention is captured by Dr. Maggie Rice, a surgeon, who valiantly tries to save the man’s life and is remorseful when her efforts do not succeed. Seth is genuinely touched by the beauty of her heart and soul, so much so that he wants her to physically see him.

Contrary to conventional angel protocol, he decides to become visible to her in some rudimentary way so that they can develop a friendship. In the physical presence of Seth, Maggie begins to inquire about his past. In spite of his evasive answers to Maggie’s basic questions such as where does he live and how he earns his living, their relationship blossoms.

Things take an unexpected turn for Seth when he meets Nathaniel Messenger, a patient of Maggie’s about to undergo surgery. Nathaniel can sense the presence of Seth because he, too, was once an angel who decided to become human to experience the joy of human relationships. Seth, after sharing his emotional turmoil with Nathaniel, considers the possibility of becoming human in order to actualize the love he feels for Maggie. The decision he makes will change his destiny forever.

In Jewish tradition, an angel is basically a messenger of God. They lack any will of their own, and they can only perform one task at the time. The Bible speaks of three angels who visited Abraham in the heat of the day when he was recuperating from his circumcision. Each angel had a specific mission. One was to inform Sarah that she would have a child. Another was to heal Abraham and save Lot, a mission of saving lives. The last angel was to inform Lot that Sodom would be destroyed.

In contrast to angels, humans have free will and can perform many missions. They can choose to do good or evil, and experience happiness and sadness in life. God gave his Torah, his book of instructions for mankind, to men, not to angels, because men, created in the Divine image, have free choice. It is in the arena of free choice that humans express their unique humanity.

The Hebrew word for Jewish law is halacha, which literally means “walking.” Choosing to follow God’s instructions for living is a dynamic journey fraught with perils, not simply a destination. It involves making many choices along the way; but where there is choice, there is great reward for choosing correctly. Seth, in The City of Angels, by deciding to become human, takes a risk that brings with it both the agonies and ecstasies of human existence.

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